With 10,000 homes needed to house all of the children in care, fostering agencies have to cast their nets wide. Kate Hilpern reports

When 26-year-old Asmeret Tesfazghi tells people what she does for a living, they're generally shocked and often fascinated. "I've been a foster carer for three years, but it never ceases to surprise people because they think it's a job for older people who have already parented," she says.

Having fled the war in Eritrea in 1989, Tesfazghi and her family had every intention of going home when things had calmed down: "But we made a life for ourselves in London and when my brother and sister left home, me and my mum decided we'd like to fill the extra rooms to give our house a family-feeling again."

That's not the only motivation for the mother and daughter fostering team, who are currently looking after two boys from Eritrea: "Back home, you look after the extended family. It's just what happens. So it felt a very natural thing to do."

The rewards are phenomenal, she says. "To do your bit to help a child grow in confidence and self-esteem is fantastic. There are challenges, of course: we've had a child who self-harmed. But you get support from the fostering agency and for me, there's time apart from it all because I work part-time in retail."

Tesfazghi is one of a growing breed of foster carers who don't fit the traditional mould. Indeed, today's carers are increasingly made up of single men, people with disabilities, 20-somethings, gay couples and people who live in rented accommodation, just to name a few examples.

Part of the drive to widen the net of foster carers is down to necessity. With 10,000 more foster carers needed to give homes to all the children currently in care, fostering agencies - which include local authorities - are simply being pragmatic.

Tesfazghi, who has won a Daily Mirror Pride of Britain award for the fostering work she has done, adds that having a variety of foster carers on hand means children are more likely to be placed somewhere that feels like "home". She explains: "I think the fact that children from Eritrea have been placed with us really helps them because we understand their culture, as well as their concerns about what is going on in Eritrea. Even little things like the fact that we're able to give them Eritrean food can make them feel much more settled at a very unsettling period of their life."

Indeed, going into foster care - whether short or long term - can be a very stressful experience for a youngster. To add to that by placing a child from, say, a working-class Asian family into a white family living in a huge house would be insensitive, at best. At worst, it could lead to the placement breaking down due to the child feeling isolated and traumatised.

"It's so important to grow up around people that look and sound like you," confirms Marcia Gordon, a 47-year-old foster carer of two children in a long-term placement. "That's one of the main reasons I decided to go into fostering. Being a woman of African descent, it concerned me that there were not enough foster carers like me."

Having foster carers available from a range of geographical areas is important too, adds Barbara Hutchinson of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF). "Many looked-after children only stay in fostering for a short time and during that period, we need to sustain the links with their community. We don't want them to lose contact with their school and friends, and unless there are child protection issues, we want them to easily be able to have contact with their family."

But despite the widening range of people now fostering, the fact remains that many young people are still forced to compromise their needs during placement, she says. "It's a sad situation, but the problem is that we still need many, many more people with varying lifestyles and backgrounds to apply to become foster carers. Until that happens, we have to use the families we have available, which isn't always the best match."

Hutchinson believes there are several reasons for the shortage: "We are not always as good as we should be in getting the message across that we need more foster carers. We're not always good at replying to initial responses either. It's a huge step for people to make that first call to enquire about applying to foster and if they don't get an immediate or positive response, then it stands to reason that they may feel discouraged.'

Others are put off because they believe it will be frowned upon that they are unemployed or conversely that they are employed. Some are concerned that they don't own their own home or that they don't have endless bedrooms. None of this is true, stresses Hutchinson, yet the myths prevail.

Some people even think that they won't be considered because they're overweight or they smoke from time to time. "In an ideal world, of course we'd be looking for people who don't smoke, eat their five-a-day quota and drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week," says Hazel Halle of the Fostering Network. "But we are looking for real people and their resilience to the stuff that children bring into placement can be more important than whether someone has a few more units of alcohol a week than is recommended."

There are also misconceptions around the type of care you'll be expected to give. It's not as if you open up your house up, only for social workers to keep piling children in for indefinite periods of time, stresses Halle. All carers work out with their social workers the number, ages and types of young people they feel they can take on, together with the length of time they can care for each. In some cases, carers take on children for as little as one weekend a month as a form of respite care for families or other full-time foster carers. At the other end of the spectrum are people who are approved by fostering agencies to see a child into adulthood. In addition, there is a range of very specific types of fostering such as remand fostering or mother and baby placements.

The level of support on offer to foster carers has changed over the years too, adds Halle. "There has been a professionalisation of foster carers, who are now increasingly considered as part of the social care workforce."

Some agencies consequently pay their foster carers a fee - enabling them to treat it as a career - although others still only pay an allowance per child. But the main rewards remain at an emotional rather than financial level, says Sian Edwards, 36, who fosters with her husband. "Giving a child attachment and security is absolutely fabulous," she says. " With one toddler, we had such a breakthrough in getting him to acknowledge his true feelings that it was incredible."

If anyone is testament to the need for a wider range of foster carers, it is this couple. "The first language of the children around where we live is Welsh and because we are one of very few Welsh-speaking foster caring families, it means many children have to be placed in an English-speaking home," she explains. "We fostered a little boy who this had happened to and the placement had broken down. They couldn't speak his language and he couldn't speak theirs. It seems so sad to have to put children through that kind of experience."

'Every child matters and has a right to live with a family'

David Hurst, 53, fosters with his wife, Penny. He is blind and disabled.

I started fostering 15 years ago and since then have cared for around 100 children who have come into our home on emergency placements, as well as short-term and long-term placements. We specialise in children with disabilities, who I can often relate to because I'm blind and have severe damage to my neck.

My wife does most of the practical day-to-day caring as she has no disabilities. Some things I actually can't do - such as certain cooking and sorting out medication. But I put in a lot of the emotional work - for example, helping the young people come to terms with why they are not living with their parents. A lot of children want to shut doors or open them when it suits them and my job is explaining there are some things out of their control. Other things I help some of them with are the importance of keeping up a relationship with their family while they're in foster care

I love kids, so fostering suits me very well. I also believe that every child matters and has a right to live with a family, no matter how disabled they are, and so I enjoy seeing that happen. We have a little boy who's been with us for five years and the alternative for him would be a long-stay institutional hospital. The fact that it hasn't happened is in itself worthwhile.

When the children reach milestones, that's also satisfying. We have a boy taking GCSEs a year early and he's expected to go on and achieve in maths and physics. That is a massive feather to have in your cap.

Some children come back to visit you later with their own children and that's wonderful too.

'We found that the fostering process was very cathartic'

Colin Wilson, 46, fosters with his partner, Graham Jenkinson.

Graham and I have been together for 25 years and we entered into fostering because we wanted a family. Obviously, being gay means that we couldn't have our own children. But while we'd made approaches to foster several times in the past, it is only recently that we were taken seriously.

We found the assessment was geared towards heterosexual couples and were asked a lot of questions about the gender roles in our household, which was obviously inappropriate. But I think the person assessing us recognised that and perhaps the format will change over time. But on the positive side, we found the process, which took eight months, very cathartic too.

It was 11 months ago that we were approved to take on one or two siblings aged 10 and 15, and within a week we were given an emergency placement of a boy who stayed with us for three weeks. Our only other placement has been a 13-year-old boy who is here long-term.

He had some behavioural and attachment issues that had a bigger impact on our lives than we expected. Because of that, the rewards were at first small because it seemed like such an onerous task. But now, when we see him speaking to people confidently and taking part in activities that he would never have been able to handle a year ago, it makes us feel so proud of him and it is immensely rewarding.

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